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President Obama’s Second Chance in Afghanistan

President Obama’s Second Chance in Afghanistan

Please join me in welcoming Neil Joeck to the Shadow Government stable. Neil served with distinction in both the Bush 43 administration and in the Obama administration. His areas of expertise are as important today as they were over a dozen years ago when he joined the Bush administration, as this analysis of the stakes and prospects in Afghanistan makes clear.

–Peter Feaver

Recent headlines have been unkind, but not unfair, to President Obama. With the completion of his Asian tour, a trip that was once intended to highlight the so-called "pivot to Asia" became something far less ambitious: an effort to reassert the natural U.S. position as a Pacific power and dependable ally. A New York Times headline on April 25 put it bluntly: "Obama Suffers Setbacks in Japan and the Middle East." The far less widely read Oakland Tribune was less kind: "Obama Foreign Policy Reeling."

But with the president perhaps buoyed by Malaysia’s cheering crowds, he now has an opportunity to prove the critics wrong and score an important foreign policy success — this time, in Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan’s recent election has demonstrated the value of the democratic process: an evenly and coherently contested campaign, widespread turnout, significantly reduced ballot irregularities, and reduced violence. In comparison to the 2009 election, which was marked by widespread fraud, the balloting serves as an important milestone as Afghan leaders seek to take control of their country after more than three decades of civil disruption and conflict. Moreover, the two men headed toward run-off, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, would represent a significant break with the fraught relationship with the United States that has marked President Hamid Karzai’s time in office. Both men have pledged to sign a bilateral security agreement that Karzai negotiated but has so far refused to sign.

Once the second round of voting is completed, the United States now has a chance to work with a fairly elected government to institutionalize many projects begun but not completed since Taliban-supported al Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S. homeland. Obama never managed to get on the right foot with Karzai and regrettably declared in December 2009 that he would begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan before it was at all clear whether conditions on the ground would support such a decision. This election gives Washington good reason to reassess those conditions and work with a new government to ensure continued development and security. The election also gives Kabul hope of getting the country back on its feet, with all that implies for education, economic growth, healthcare, and a myriad of social advances above and beyond the basic need for security. But Kabul can’t do it alone. Stable, effective governance that is absent violent conflict will not happen unless the U.S. now pays close attention to the broader regional context that may fester in the absence of U.S. attention and substantial diplomatic engagement.

The as yet unsigned bilateral security agreement, intended to sustain a minimal U.S. troop presence and now more likely to be signed, is not itself a solution to the challenges facing Afghanistan and U.S. foreign policy. At least four important and highly interconnected outcomes should be considered if the United States wishes to avoid leaving behind a badly broken country at war with itself and a threat to U.S. security and global stability. The first is to prevent the return of terrorist safe havens, which can only happen if we also achieve a second outcome: avoiding another civil war. This will require achieving a third objective: finding the political space for India and Pakistan to engage politically with Afghanistan’s government — and each other — in order to avoid a proxy military conflict after 2014. That, in turn, cannot happen without achieving a fourth objective: sustaining a constructive American presence.

None of this will be easy given the other crises now vying for Obama’s limited attention. Inattention in the early stages of other crises, such as those in North Africa, the Middle East, Ukraine, and East Asia, established the conditions for regional insecurity and instability. Inattention to post-2014 developments in Afghanistan will yield similar results — chaotic conflict on the ground followed by an ad hoc U.S. response. When running for president in 2008, then-candidate Obama vowed that he would "make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority it should be," adding "this is a war we have to win."

It is not too late to make good on that promise.